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Travis County Now Allows Automatic Release For Low-Level Felonies

Gabriel C. Pérez

People accused of nonviolent felonies like possession of a controlled substance, possession of marijuana, theft and prostitution can now be automatically released on bond – on the condition that they return to court.

The order from district judges released Tuesday comes as county officials have tried to reduce the number of new inmates in Travis County amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the last few weeks, courts have suspended nonessential hearings and arrest warrants for nonviolent felony and misdemeanors until after May 8.

The judges' decision also comes in the wake of a similar order released in February that granted automatic release for most nonviolent misdemeanors.

There are a handful of conditions that could disqualify someone from release. For instance, if a defendant is currently out on bond or has violated conditions related to a previous offense like failing to appear before a judge.

But criminal justice advocates say the order could have gone further.

Chris Harris, a campaign coordinator with the nonprofit Texas Appleseed, said the system for granting these bonds isn't necessarily as automatic as officials bill it. People have to see a magistrate and get screened before release. That could mean more people in jail, which he says is a risk in light of COVID-19.

"If the virus does really get into the jail and there's still a lot of people there such that they can't socially distance, it will be a vector for the disease," he said, "not just for the jail, but for the whole community."

The Travis County Sheriff's Office said, as of Wednesday, no one had tested positive for COVID-19, but that 20 people were being isolated and were under observation.

But District Attorney Margaret Moore told KUT that bypassing that magistration isn't yet possible, because of the interconnectedness of the city and county's bail system.

In Travis County, magistration and bond-setting are largely done in municipal courts, Moore says. Harris County uses a different system that doesn't lean on those city judges, which allows for defendants to get released without doing magistration, then they come back a few days later.

To do that, the county and city would have to completely rework the bail system outlined in their contract.

"We don't have that process now, and it's not part of the contract," Moore said. "So coming back later for a magistration would involve a systemic change that, frankly, involves a lot more study."

Harris and others have also argued the framework could move people out of jails more quickly if there weren't requirements for pretrial screenings and if court staff didn't have as much sway in whether a defendant qualifies for automatic release.

County officials have argued even if a defendant doesn't qualify for automatic release, it's still possible for them to get a personal bond and that the lion's share of defendants in the county often do.

Correction – This story initially said the judges' order came out Thursday, not Tuesday.

This story has been updated.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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